WELCOME to the debut of “The Truth Is!”, a blog of reporting and commentary that aims to be informative, thoughtful and provocative. At least initially, the blog will have a strong heartland flavor by virtue of the connection of a number of us to Cowles family journalism. I am former editor of the Des Moines Register’s opinion pages. Another contributor, Michael Gartner, is former editor of the paper; he later served as president of NBC News. Another former Register editor who has agreed to contribute, Geneva Overholser, is director of the University of Southern California’s Annenberg school of journalism. Followers of the blog will have access also to the work of Herbert Strentz of Des Moines, a close Register and other newspaper watcher who once headed Drake University’s journalism school. Bill Leonard, a longtime Register editorial writer, will add insights.

“The Truth Is!” will be supervised by my daughter, Marcia Wolff, a communications lawyer for 20 years with Arnold and Porter (Washington, D.C.). Invaluable technical assistance in assembling and maintaining the blog is provided by my grandsons Julian Cranberg, a college first-year, and Daniel Wolff, a high school senior.

If you detect a whiff of nepotism in this operation, so be it. All of it is strictly a labor of love. —Gil Cranberg

Tuesday, December 31, 2013


Time magazine plans to change its chain-of-command so that the editorial side of the publication will report to the business side. What an atrocious idea! Even if the business side applies its power to influence news decisions with the lightest of hands, the perception that commercial considerations determine content does the publication immense harm.

And even if non-editorial people won’t actually edit stories, putting the business side in charge is bound to be stultifying. How many story ideas won’t even be suggested because of concern that it won’t be judged on its editorial merits?

I once visited Time’s editorial offices and was startled to be offered a drink from the open bar operating there. Drinking on the job was not just tolerated, it appeared to be encouraged, judging from the flow of free liquor I witnessed. I wonder now if the flawed judgment that made it seem OK to drink while working is still part of Time’s culture and explains why the powers-that-be believe it to be a good idea to put the business side in charge of editorial operations.

But then, I worked for many years at a newspaper where the advertising manager had a self-imposed policy of never visiting the newsroom because he worried that his presence would be seen as an attempt to influence news coverage on behalf of an advertiser.

That ad manager carried the wall of separation between news and business too far, just as Time now doesn’t carry it far enough. The ad manager’s name was Lyle Linn. Time needs a few Lyle Linns in its upper ranks.

Monday, December 30, 2013


Medical lobbyists are said to spend half a billion dollars a year, and every actor in the system--hospitals, doctors, nurses, nursing homes, pharmaceutical companies, and so on--has its advocates, except the one group for which the system exists to serve: the consumer of health-care services, the patient.

Call it the missing link in health care policy, an omission the press does little if anything to address. Yes, AARP draws some attention, but the many millions it pockets from providers (AARP terms the payments “royalties”) compromises its ability to be a true consumer advocate; in truth, it is more provider than spokesman for patient interests.

I became aware of the “missing link” years ago when I was appointed by Iowa’s governor to be a consumer representative on the state’s health planning council. Consumers were well-represented on the council; in fact, we were the largest single group, but we were impotent, since we had no organized constituency. Lacking that, we had no agenda. The providers, representing organized groups, knew exactly what they wanted.

The lesson that I learned years ago--that patients must be organized to have an effective voice in health-care policy--is still valid today because the “missing link” is still missing. For all of the attention lavished on health care, it’s startling that no single organization of patients exists to lobby in behalf of their interests.

So, patients, get off your bedpans and get organized.

Saturday, December 28, 2013


You don’t need to have experienced Japanese machine gun fire whizzing inches above your head to believe that the current talk about reviving the Japanese military is a terrible idea. The obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II ought to be enough to squelch forever any war-like moves in Japan. But apparently there’s still an unquenched thirst for war, or at least for a bigger military.

Article 9 of Japan’s constitution supposedly commits the country to pacifism. The article says, “Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes. To accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.”

But Japan has a Self-Defense Force, which gives a pretty good imitation of being an army. It also has tanks, though they are called “special vehicles.” Plans are afoot to acquire drones and amphibious assault vehicles. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reportedly has a “life goal” of revising Article 9. The New York Times reports his aim is “a more powerful, assertive Japan, complete with a full-fledged military, as well as pride in its World War II-era past.”

“Pride in its World War II-era past?" What can he be thinking? Japan made lasting enemies through its conduct during the war. It's worrisome that belligerence still seems part of the culture. Why else would hotheads in Japan be bent all out of shape over a dispute with China over worthless piles of rock?

Abe has increased military spending and recently paid a visit to a shrine that honors the nation’s war dead, including several executed war criminals.

The United States should refuse to aid and abet the remilitarization of Japan by selling it arms. Americans should protest forcefully any effort to tinker with Article 9 or to undermine it. War veterans who fought in the Pacific should especially have their voices heard in protest against a rearmed and militaristic Japan.

President Obama was born in Hawaii. The bombing of Pearl Harbor should have special resonance with him. He and Secretary of State John Kerry, who fought in the Pacific, should be warning Japan’s prime minister in no uncertain terms that he is headed in the wrong direction.

Article 9 was enacted in full knowledge of the country's past. It should be reinforced instead of being pockmarked with loopholes. Caroline Kennedy, the new U.S. ambassador to Japan, has her work cut out for her.

Michael Gartner: JUDGE KOPF

Judge Richard Kopf
Senior judge Richard Kopf of the U.S. District Court for the District of Nebraska the other day ruled in favor of Stephanie Rose and the government in the case that fired assistant U.S. attorney Martha Fagg brought against the Justice Department. Fagg had alleged harassment and discrimination while the U.S. attorney’s office in Cedar Rapids, Iowa was run by Rose, who now is a federal judge in Des Moines.

It was kind of a nasty case, and it was particularly interesting because it involved a federal judge relying in part on the testimony of two other federal judges as he wrote about a fight between a fourth federal judge and the daughter of a fifth federal judge. It involved “the careers and reputations of several lawyers and a judge,” Kopf noted, and he called the three principals -- Rose, Fagg and assistant U.S. Attorney Teresa Baumann, “fine people and very good lawyers.”

He went on to say that “nothing worthwhile would be served by reciting a litany of facts, with ‘blow-by-blow’ details, except to needlessly sully reputations or feed the voracious appetites of voyeurs.”

Then he sullied reputations and fed the voracious appetites of voyeurs.

“In my opinion, there is absolutely no question that Fagg was openly disrespectful of Rose and Baumann,” he wrote, without citing any facts to back that up.

“At times, and in my opinion, [the efforts of Rose and Baumann] to bring oversight and discipline to the Civil Division, and Fagg in particular, were overly zealous and harsh,” he wrote, without citing any facts to back that up.

“Rose and Fagg are unrepentant ‘hard heads,’” he wrote, without citing any facts to back that up.

“Were it not for the lawyers representing the parties, I would be utterly depressed,” he wrote, without citing any facts to back that up.

Parties in a lawsuit deserve to know why they won or lost. What the judge thinks of them -- be they hard-heads or zealous or disrespectful -- is irrelevant. How he came to his ruling -- how those blow-by-blow details figured in -- is relevant.

As for those voyeurs with voracious appetites -- well, one judge’s voyeur is another’s citizen trying to explore, or perhaps explain, democracy in action


Charles and David Koch
Remember the term “Communist Front Organization”? It was so common in the 1950s that Congress ordered any group deemed to be one to register and disclose its membership. The idea behind the fronts was that the Communist Party could do its work more effectively by taking over existing organizations or creating new ones while disguising their Communist connections.

Guess who is practicing this Communist tactic nowadays? None other than the brothers Koch, Charles and David, who are spreading their money around to a web of organizations, none of which is named Koch, but all of which are dedicated to furthering the conservative agenda of the brothers.

The Koch fronts use names such as Citizens for a Sound Economy, Freedom Works, Americans for Prosperity, Citizens for the Environment, Patients United Now, Competitive Enterprise Institute, and the like.

It’s almost hilarious that the exemplars of right-wing capitalism should be so closely following the playbook of the U.S. Communist Party in their reliance on front groups.

The Communist Party and their fronts were widely regarded as mouthpieces for the Soviet Union and seen as undermining the U.S. in its ongoing cold war against the Russians. For that, membership in a front organization was risky, if not dangerous. People were persecuted and lost their livelihoods because of it, and some were driven to suicide.

Communist fronts were reviled chiefly, but not solely, because they were seen as in the service of a foreign power. The fronts were in the doghouse, also, because of the fundamental dishonesty of hiding their true identity.

Thus far, there is very little in the way of negative feeling towards the sneaky way in which the Kochs operate. Perhaps that’s because the press has not done a good job of exposing it. The brothers have every right to influence public policy and public opinion, but they ought to be upfront about it. The press should do more to acquaint Americans with the Kochs’ Communist-inspired tactics.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013


My tipping skills are rusty inasmuch as I live in a retirement community that does not allow tips for individual services. Instead, we make lump-sum contributions to a fund that management allocates to employees. It seems to work.

The other evening, after dining at a restaurant, I was puzzling over the tip when I impulsively asked the waitress what I should leave her. She mentioned a sum that seemed reasonable and in line with what I was considering. I added it to the bill. The collaboration on the tip left me with a warm feeling.

Now, I wonder, why not make what I did standard practice? Among their other skills, servers are experts on tipping, and likely know more about it than most people. Certainly, they know better than anyone the customary tip where they work. All of this knowledge goes to waste because seldom does a customer venture to ask, as I did, “Miss, excuse me, but what do you suggest that I leave for a tip?”

In reflecting on how to refine my new-found approach to tipping, I’ve decided that next time, midway through the meal, I will inform the waiter that I intend to consult him about the tip and that he should think about it. That way, I will get a more considered judgment. I can hardly wait.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Gilbert Cranberg: IOWA’S BETTER WAY

A Tampa attorney and adjunct law professor at Stetson University College of Law, Richard A. Harrison, has accused his fellow Florida lawyers of creating a cottage industry of lawsuits over the state’s open-government laws for their personal financial benefit. Harrison says “a handful of plaintiffs and complicit lawyers” have filed cases “that are all about attorneys’ fees” that have netted nearly $2 million statewide in fees for plaintiff lawyers since 2000.

Harrison made his “cottage industry” allegation in an op-ed-article in the Dec. 19 Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Attributing motive is always tricky, so it can’t be known with certainty that lawsuits are being filed solely to generate legal fees, but Harrison’s article inadvertently raises a legitimate question: Is there a better way to enforce the public’s important right of access to public records and meetings than by filing lawsuits?

There is. Iowa recently pioneered the establishment of an alternative by creating the Iowa Public Information Board to investigate complaints of violation of the state’s Sunshine laws and to resolve them.

The nine-member board is appointed by the governor, subject to confirmation by the Iowa Senate. No more than three members of the board can be members of the media and no more than three can be representatives of cities, counties or other political subdivisions. Aggrieved parties either can continue to look for redress in the courts or to seek it from the Public Information Board, which is authorized “to seek resolution of such complaints through informal assistance or through mediation and settlement.” If the board finds probable cause that open-government laws have been violated, it can prosecute “before the board in a contested case proceeding” and impose civil penalties.

Iowa’s approach to enforcement of its Open Government laws is the brainchild of Arthur Bonfield, a brilliant member of the faculty of the University of Iowa’s College of Law and an expert on administrative law.
Professor Arthur Bonfield

Richard Harrison says that to stop Florida lawyers from gaming the system, “people must empower their local government to fight” the lawsuits. But that would simply increase legal costs, including plaintiff lawyer fees. Arthur Bonfield has a better idea. He ought to be consulted about bringing the Iowa plan to Florida and other states with the same problem.


It’s a shame the name Thamsanqa Jantjie is difficult for most of us to pronounce, because he’s a parable for our age and could serve us so well.

You will quickly recall Mr. Jantjie if reminded of the imposter at the Soweto Stadium memorial service for Nelson Mandela, the fellow who pretended to be signing for President Barack Obama and other national or world leaders.

Here’s the thing: Jantjie's supposed “signing” was said to be gibberish — meaningless gestures timed to the words of the speakers praising Nelson Mandela.

But for those of us who are not hearing impaired was Jantjie’s gibberish so different from what we are routinely subjected to on television?

Let’s give a name to such nonsense and call it — working off Jantjie’s first name — “Thamming” or “being Thammed.”

How about at the next political debates, we turn off the audio and have an insert of Jaintjie “Thamming” the candidates’ promises for us? Or, from my perspective, have him as the resident signer for Fox News.

Would so much be lost?

On a more playful note, in watching baseball games you may be familiar with how the catcher and the pitcher have a conference on the mound with their gloved hands covering their mouths. What a wonderful spot for ESPN and other purveyors of MLB (major league baseball) to call upon Mr. Jaintjie and again have his insert on the screen, “Thamming” what the players are talking about.

Nice thing about it is the TV folks wouldn’t have to use Jantjie all the time, just replay the same video of him hard at work — regardless of the program being aired.

Sort of raises the question: Apart from security incompetence, what’s to be upset about Jantjie’s signing gibberish? He was just giving us the same stuff that many politicians and talking heads do so often without having an intermediary “Thamming” for them.

Indeed, and sadly, a parable for our age.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013


A lengthy article in the Dec. 3 New York Times, headlined, “As Hospital Prices Soar, A Single Stitch Tops $500,” went into detail about runaway hospital charges in various parts of the country. Almost nothing was said, however, about what patients actually pay.

I recently experienced slight chest discomfort – very slight—during water aerobics. I mentioned it to the nurse in my retirement facility. She recommended calling an ambulance. The six-mile trip to the hospital took a few minutes, for which I was billed $668. I quit paying attention to the bill when I saw that insurance left me with a zero balance. Almost the same with the hospital charges. Those charges amounted to nearly $18,200 for a three-day stay, but when I noted that my portion of the bill was a mere $332, I barely scrutinized it.

My error. Patients should know in detail what’s being charged so they can understand and raise questions about it. While insurance companies review health bills, this is no substitute for patients doing their part.

My hunch is that my experience is more typical than not. When third parties pay much of the tab, there’s little incentive for patients to play what should be an essential role in the health-care system, as a check on provider charges.

If patients can’t or won’t do that, perhaps providers should be required to bear part of the cost for the services they prescribe. That’s a radical remedy for runaway charges that may not stand scrutiny. But there’s little in the health care system that can. When a bill for tens of thousands of dollars arrives in the mail and barely rates a glance, it may be time for radical remedies.


Gil (left) and Cal

Thank you for the world so sweet.
Thank you for the food we eat.
Thank you for each bird that sings.
Thank you, Lord, for all good things.

Thank you for the gift of life.
Thanks for strength to cope with strife.
Thanks for laws that bind, and free,
And that help us move and be.
Oh, yes. One more thing I find:
Thanks for times we’ve peace of mind.

Editor's Note: This past Thanksgiving a reunion took place between Gil Cranberg and his World War II infantry foxhole mate, Cal Claus. Both are 88. Reminiscences were shared. At one point, Cal, a retired school psychologist from Wisconsin, recited a poem, reprinted here. Cal explained: "The first part was a childhood prayer. The second part ... emerged from some musings on my WWII experiences of being the target of random artillery, mortar and rifle fire. There were many moments when I wasn't sure I would see my 20th birthday, let alone my 88th. Indeed, each day is a gift!!!!!!!!!!!! Each moment of life is something to savor. In the scheme of things, I did celebrate my 20th birthday (July 4, 1945) on Okinawa after the battle had ended.  Shalom, salaam, shanti, peace. Cal."

Gil (right) and Cal (middle) in Hawaii, 1944

Sunday, December 15, 2013


The service in South Africa to honor Nelson Mandela was marred by an off-kilter sign-language interpretation and by an almost equally unintelligible comment by Senator John McCain. The Arizona senator and former presidential nominee likened the handshake at the service between President Obama and Cuba’s Raul Castro to the one between Adolph Hitler and Britain’s Neville Chamberlain.

McCain presumably meant to suggest that Castro was Hitler and Obama was Chamberlain. That is as absurd as it is offensive. Castro is a minor figure on the world stage. Hitler was a mass murderer, a likely psychopath. Whatever Castro’s misdeeds, they aren’t in any way in the same league as Hitler’s monstrous crimes. In his clumsy effort to make Obama look bad, McCain managed to minimize and trivialize the crimes of one of the worst mass killers in world history by making them appear to be no worse than the offenses of Cuba’s nobody.

The excuse for the botched signing is that the signer is a self-described schizophrenic. John McCain has no comparable excuse. He had no reason to say anything.

Now, having put his foot in his mouth, he has reason to apologize to the many of Hitler’s victims still living for a ludicrous comment.


(Author’s note: Mindful of how local television and newspapers routinely advise viewers and readers on how to cope with supposedly significant problems in today’s complex world, here are a few well-focused hints on how best to not only survive, but to triumph over the rigors of holiday shopping.)

Regardless of how well-intended or how well-financed it is, your holiday shopping may be a bummer if you cannot get your car out of the garage to begin your gift-buying adventure or you encounter other problems. Here are five hints to speed you on your way to the malls and stores of your choice.

1. Plan Ahead: The night before your shopping spree, make sure your automobile is positioned well for a worry-free exit from your garage. Clear away all debris and obstruction from the rear of the car — assuming you pulled in while in forward gear. (If you backed into the garage, clear away any debris from the front of the car.) In either case make sure the driveway also is free of obstacles. Make sure the trunk of the car has enough space to accommodate all the gifts you will buy. As a side note, remember that you can save on gasoline by 5 to 10 percent if you remove 500 to 1,000 pounds of scrap iron from your trunk — providing more space and money for your shopping.

2. Fill ‘er up? Speaking of mileage, how much gasoline should you be sure to have in the tank? Generally a quarter of a tank will suffice for in-town shopping. If you are uncertain as to how far you can drive when the tank is near empty, a good test — a few days before your shopping trip — is to let the tank drop to one-eighth full or even the dreaded E indicator. Then see how far you can drive on the nearest Interstate Highway before running out of fuel. Be sure to pack the backseat area with sufficient fuel containers to get you to a service station at the end of your test drive.

3. How many children should you take shopping? Follow the two-hour rule! If you take one child, plan on shopping for two hours. Subtract a half hour for each additional child who tags along. If you do the math, that means there’ll be no shopping with five children and only half an hour with four. If you have to take children with you on the recommended test mileage drive and put them in the back seat with the fuel containers, it’s a good idea to rehearse the “drop and roll” drill for dousing clothing that’s afire.

4. Anticipate (and avoid) problems: Be sure to take a spare ignition key with you. A savvy shopper does NOT keep the spare key on the same ring that holds the regular key. Also, be sure to have the car in reverse if backing out and make sure the garage door is open before you do so. On automatic transmissions, reverse usually is indicated by the R on the gearshift or dashboard. For standard transmissions, look for an indicator on the gearshift or consult your driver’s manual. (If you haven’t removed the fuel containers from the backseat, do so now. Do the same for any charred clothing.)

5. How many stops should I make? If you follow the two-hour rule in Step 3, you likely will be limited to one stop. Otherwise, follow the Rule of Three — any combination of stops at malls and local stores that adds up to parking three times. This will minimize shopping hassles and keep you energized for your next shopping adventure — assuming you’ve followed our advice and gotten out of the garage.

As a bonus, taking seriously all of the above will better prepare you for handling similar advice offered by local television and newspapers.

Thursday, December 12, 2013


This country gives its citizens the greatest freedom under the sun to express themselves. So why are they so tongue-tied when it comes to the country’s festering problem of income inequality?

The U.S. has a genius for producing things. We out-produced our enemies and won World War II. We are inept, though, in distribution. We have yet to figure out how to spread the fruits of our labor.

After World War II we were instrumental in getting a whole continent on its feet. But only recently did we take initial steps toward getting impoverished sick Americans on their feet and out of packed emergency rooms.

It took a Pearl Harbor for America to truly get to work. What will it take for a successful war on inequality? The country once declared war on poverty. Then it surrendered.

Inequality is at least now part of the national conversation, and the president gave a major address about it. But how long will that last? Americans are notoriously impatient. They tire quickly of subjects and search eagerly for the next new thing. The press especially has an insatiable appetite for fresh angles.

Economic inequality does not lend itself to quick fixes. It will be a long haul, and the country’s best minds must be recruited to address it.

For starters, both political parties should agree to dedicate the next presidential election to in-depth debate of the issue. Call it the inequality election. Potential presidential candidates in both parties should be preparing to tell voters even now how they intend to tackle the issue. Their programs should be a centerpiece of the presidential debates.

Progress on solving income inequality is vital to the nation’s health and the well-being of tens of millions of Americans. Every public-policy resource should be mobilized for the priority the issue deserves.


After many years as a journalist—investigating presidents, congressmen, and labor union officials, examining the military-industrial complex, civil rights and social justice issues—I never imagined that the most challenging and rewarding story would be about my own family.

Growing up in San Antonio, I knew little about my Kallison grandparents in whose home my mother and I lived for the first twelve years of my life. They were two of 23 million men, women and children—two million of them Jews from Russia and Eastern Europe—who surged into the United States from 1880 through 1920—and they rarely spoke of their pasts.

Why hadn’t I asked them about their early lives: Where in Russia were they born? What was it like living as Jews under the autocratic thumb of an oppressive czar? How did they escape from Russia? Why did they come to Texas? How did they grow their harness shop into the largest farm and ranch supply business in the Southwest? How did a Jewish merchant become a path-breaking Texas rancher? I had plenty of opportunities to ask those questions and many others. Yet I knew more about Sam Houston and his victory in the Texas War of Independence from Mexico than I did about my own grandparents’ escape from a different revolution in Russia.

I have discovered that my lack of knowledge about my forbearers is not an unusual phenomenon. Like the Kallisons, millions of American families have poorly documented and preserved their past—a loss for the families themselves and for a wiser understanding of our nation’s history. With the Internet and digitization of so many primary source documents, unearthing your family’s past now is possible even for amateurs with limited computer skills.

Key to the exploration of my roots was a Google search of the Kallison name followed by a letter-writing campaign to those who shared it. Of the 100 letters sent, several bore fruit. One distant cousin provided a family history tracing a common ancestor to the tiny Ukrainian village of Ladyzhinka. Googling that town name led me to the Waldheim Cemetery in Chicago where photographs on headstones revealed identities of unknown ancestors in our family photos: my grandfather’s older and younger brothers, Jacob and Samuel Kallison and their mother Dina Elloff Kallison.

Using ancestry.com and fold3.com (formerly footnotes.com), I accessed ships’ logs, census documents, military records, marriage and death certificates, fifty years of city directories, and even high school and college yearbooks. Those primary sources yielded invaluable information about my grandfather, his extended family and the world in which they lived. The census documents alone were a treasure trove of information. Beyond names, addresses, ages, occupations, income, immigration information, and citizenship status, they revealed who could read and write in English, who suffered the loss of a child, who had servants or took in borders, even who owned a radio in the early 20th century.

At Newspaperarchives.com, I found a story on published poll tax lists noting that Nathan Kallison was among those who paid for the “right” to vote in Texas in 1911. Spanning decades, I found hundreds of ads for the Kallisons' downtown store and their Bexar County ranch showing the growth of the family’s dual enterprise. Even the local society pages yielded important minutiae from the everyday lives of Nathan and Anna Kallison and their four children: Parties attended; piano recital pieces; debating team topics; roles in school plays; membership in religious, charitable, and community organizations. Together, they gave me a unique picture of who the Kallisons were and what they valued.

For anyone interested in delving into their own family’s past, agencies at all levels of government are digitizing records. It surprised me to discover that in 1927, during Prohibition, the U.S. government indicted my grandfather and Uncle Morris Kallison for violating laws against the production, sale, and transport of alcoholic beverages. I read the court transcript and looked at the photographic evidence against them using digitized National Archives records. I also easily accessed Bexar County, Texas’s amazing collection of online files. Among the land records, licenses, and agreements, I found the 1902 contract for the first parcel of land purchased by my grandparents–who as Jews were denied that right in the Russia of their youth. My grandfather signed his name in Hebrew script; my grandmother, with an “x.”

I now realize that the most important history of our country is not found in the grand events of wars and presidencies, but rather in the everyday lives of our citizens: how they worked hard to support their families; how they coped with hardships, discrimination, and human tragedy; and how they contributed to their own communities and nation. There has never been a better time to research your own family’s past. That is the story only you can tell.

[Nick Kotz’s book The Harness Maker’s Dream: Nathan Kallison and the Rise of South Texas was published recently. Kotz has received the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting, the National Magazine Award, and the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Award, among others.]

Saturday, December 7, 2013


I noted with more than passing interest that the funeral procession to honor Nelson Mandela would make a ceremonial stop in Soweto, the former all-black township near Johannesburg. I visited Soweto in the 1970s. It was a memorable visit because I was smuggled in. The smugglers were government critics who satisfied my curiosity to see Soweto by cramming me into the rear of an auto and warning me to crouch and keep my face hidden. In those days, it was illegal for whites to set foot in the black township.

Mind you, I was an American journalist out to see Soweto by visiting an American government-financed library in the township. Never mind, racial-mixing rules trumped everything in those days. Concealed in the back of that car, I became an instant advocate for Americans to see for themselves the evils of apartheid. At the time, it was popular to make South Africa a pariah and to have absolutely nothing to do with the place. I thought that was misguided when it prevented people from witnessing what can happen when racism runs amok.

South Africa at the time was a political-science freak, where a minority ruled the majority by enforcing an almost inhuman form of segregation in everyday life. You didn’t need to be a particularly perceptive observer to realize that the days of apartheid were numbered. I recommended to my friends that by all means they should visit South Africa, and not to delay as the place was certain to explode. I reckoned without the genius of Nelson Mandela.

His ability to peacefully reconcile the races must rank as among mankind’s monumental achievements.

Soweto Township

Thursday, December 5, 2013


I was thrilled to see the head, “Promotion of 3 Editors Is Announced At The Times” in the paper’s Dec. 3 issue. Not that I knew any of them; it’s just that I have a hobby of sorts collecting the ways newspapers deal with editorial titles.

My personal favorite is “associate editor.” This all-purpose designation can be, and has been, bestowed on anyone in the newsroom, from the lowliest to the loftiest. I’ve never met a coherent job description of “associate editor;” as reliable as any probably is someone who associates with editors, but newspapers won’t ever say that.

The Times story about the three promotions illustrates the problem the press has with clarity in describing its internal operations.  Almost immediately the reader learns that there were three “masthead promotions” that continue the paper’s “emphasis on digital initiatives and enterprise reporting.” Pray tell, what is a “masthead promotion” or for that matter “digital initiatives,” “enterprise reporting” and “long-form journalism”, another Inside Baseball term that was undefined.

The promotions were announced by Jill Abramson, identified in the story as the paper’s executive editor. Once upon a time a paper’s top editor was known as the Editor, but that has fallen by the wayside and at some papers the title of Editor has been given to the editor of the editorial page. The top editor of the Wall Street Journal, believe it or not, is the managing editor, Gerard Baker, but he also bears the more exalted title of “Editor-in-Chief of Dow Jones.”

The Times’ masthead lists one managing editor, three deputy managing editors and five assistant managing editors. The difference between deputy and assistant is never explained.

Newspapers have more pressing problems than sorting out job titles. But now and then it would be nice if they demystified their operations and told readers in plain English what’s going on.


While many Americans feasted over Thanksgiving, CBS’s 60 Minutes had a meal of a different sort, eating humble pie for its misleading Oct. 27 segment on the attack on the Benghazi embassy that took the life of the U.S ambassador to Libya. The program both apologized to viewers and corrected the record.

No CBS correspondent reported the flawed information. Instead, a lying source did. The lying source – one who deliberately makes up information – is every news organization’s nightmare. I know of none that employs lie detectors, so it’s a matter of using old-fashioned skepticism to spot and weed out the phonies. And then, it’s up to the news organization to come clean, admit the error that slips into a news report and correct the record. Unfortunately, too many corrections are so grudging they fall short of adequately informing the public of the facts.

60 Minutes deserves credit for a forthcoming admission of error in having given credence to a lying source. 

The program’s correction and apology are in marked contrast to the silence of members of Congress who exploited the Benghazi tragedy to score political points. Iowa Representative Steve King, for example, in his typical understated way, declared without supporting evidence that, “if you link Watergate and Iran-Contra together and multiply it times maybe 10 or so, you’re going to get in the zone where Benghazi is.”

King and other congressional rabble rousers need to take lessons from CBS and 60 Minutes on how to show proper respect both for the public and for the facts.

Herb Strentz: FORGET JOHN 3:16, IT’S ALL ABOUT BOB 7:14!

Say your prayers! According to a Des Moines, Iowa, Register news report, Robert Vander Plaats — perhaps the most prominent spokesman for the state’s religious right — is soon into another resurrection, as a candidate for public office, rallying his troops around scripture, Chapter 7 Verse 14.

The Register didn’t say which 7:14 — so it might have been the Book of Bob. News stories, however, seldom provide details or questions about Plaats pronouncements. He pretty much gets a free ride from the Iowa press, and national press, too, when wrong about the Constitution or anything else.

But a check of the Good Book found the Vander Plaats campaign theme, right there in II Chronicles 7:14: “(I)f my people…will humble themselves…and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and I will forgive their sin…”

To get the campaign under way, Vander Plaats wants the faithful in his Family Leader organization to set their smart phones to remind them of 7:14, every day at 7:14 a.m. and 7:14 p.m.

A few things about the scriptural and the temporal 7:14:

1. The verse, in the eyes of the true believers, targets the rest of us of course. We’re the ones, not they, who have it all wrong.

2. Regardless of the time of day and the nonsense about how the Iowa GOP is a full-spectrum party, the Vander Plaats candidacy is consistent with the three Rs of today’s Republicanism — right wing, reactionary, religious fervor.

3. The 7:14 selection is consistent with how we cherry pick scripture to make a point. In the preceding verse of 7:13 it’s clear that Jehovah isn’t all warm and fuzzy; He threatens to “shut up the heavens so there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land, or send a plague among my people.”

Verse 7:13 is not the sort of message for the campaign of a would-be U.S. Senator, the post Vander Plaats may be seeking — although it does hint at the dysfunctional nature of Congress.

In leafing through the Bible for various takes on 7:14, the quest begins with Genesis 7:14 (Noah loading the ark), and ends with Revelation 7:14 (the saints washing their robes white in the blood of the Lamb). A journey of rescue and redemption, as it were.

In the Books of Daniel and Isaiah the 7:14 selections offer what Christians read as prophecies of the coming of Christ, but those are matters of theology, not the in-your-face ideology promulgated by the religious right.

And there are a few misses. Ten of the 39 Old Testament books have no Chapter 7, and the Book of Esther ends Chapter 7 at verse 10 with the impaling of Haman — a bit too gruesome, even for the Iowa GOP campaign trail.

In the New Testament, by my count, 17 of the 27 books end before a Chapter 7.

So it is back to the Old Testament for 7:14s that the rest of us might find reassuring. For example, Zechariah 7:14 is a clear prophecy of the ruin that the religious and political right have brought to the Iowa judiciary, Iowa education and other once-treasured foundations of the Hawkeye state:

“The land they left behind them was so desolate that no one traveled through it. This is how they made the pleasant land desolate.” Can’t beat that for a summary of Iowa’s religious right and its slash and burn politics.

And, from one familiar with tribulations, Job 7:14 speaks to how the Vander Plaats crowd scares many of us: “…you frighten me with dreams and terrify me with visions.”

Ezekiel 7 chimes in, too, against the religious right: 7:11, “none of the people will be left,” and 7:14 “…my wrath is on the whole crowd.”

The Psalmist at 7:14 may be in accord with birth control and Planned Parenthood: “Whoever is pregnant with evil conceives trouble and gives birth to disillusionment.”

Ecclesiastes 7:14 brings some sense to the issue: “When times are good, be happy; but when times are bad consider this: God has made the one as well as the other. Therefore no one can discover anything about their future” — regardless of how many daily reminders you get about Bob 7:14.


We have a gourmet cook in our family.


Hors D’Oeuvres:
Red Ruby Potatoes with Crème Fraiche and Caviar
Babaganoush and Pita Breads
Chicken Liver Pate and Assorted Crackers
Artichoke Spread
Filo Cups Stuffed with Goat Cheese and Honey Beets
Filo Cups Stuffed with Brie and Onion Relish
Grapes with Honeyed Goat Cheese and Pecans
Gourmet Grilled Cheese with Date Nut Bread and Brie

Langoustine and Grilled Shrimp in Red Pepper Sauce Over Puff Pastry Shells

Principal Meal:
Roasted Turkey
Grilled Salmon
Stuffed Pork Loin with Loganberry Pepper Sauce
Vegetable Lasagna
Turkey Divan
Quinoa-Stuffed Red Peppers with Black Beans and Eggplant
Lentils with Carrots and Celery
Mashed Potatoes and Gravy
Candied Sweet Potatoes
Potato Latkes with Apple Sauce and Sour Cream
Cheesy Potatoes
Macaroni and Cheese
Cheesy Cauliflower
Corn Pudding
Dressing with Raisins, Apples and Nuts
Roasted Brussels Sprouts and Carrots
Green Beans with Oregano and Slivered Almonds
Broccoli Salad with Grapes, Provel Cheese, Red Onion and Almonds
Cranberry and Orange Relish

Assorted Breads

Pumpkin Pie with Whipped Cream
Pecan Pie
Pumpkin Cake Roll with Cream Cheese Filling
Cream Puffs
Cheese Cake
Zucchini, Pumpkin and Chocolate Breads

                                                            Rose Schmitt at Rest